For a few frenzied weeks, beekeepers from around the United States truck billions of honeybees to California to rent them to almond growers who need the insects to pollinate the state's most valuable crop. But as almond trees start to bloom, blanketing entire valleys in white and pink flowers, so begin beehive thefts that have become so prevalent that beekeepers are now turning to GPS tracking devices, surveillance cameras, and other anti-theft technology to protect their precious colonies, per the AP. Hive thefts have been reported elsewhere in the country, most recently three hives containing about 60,000 bees taken from a grocery chain's garden in central Pennsylvania.
But the thefts happen at a larger scale and uniquely in California this time of year because bees are most in demand during the largest pollination event in the world. In the past few weeks, 1,036 beehives worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were reported stolen from orchards statewide, authorities said. The largest heist involved 384 beehives that were taken from a field in Mendocino County, prompting the state beekeepers association to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to their recovery. Thefts usually happen at night, when no one is in the orchard and the bees are back in their hives. The rustler is usually a beekeeper or someone familiar with the transportation of bees.
"They steal to make money," said Rowdy Jay Freeman, a Butte County sheriff's detective who has been keeping track of hive thefts since 2013. A tightening supply of bees and soaring pollination fees—jumping from less than $50 to rent a hive two decades ago to as much as $230 per hive this year—are likely motivating beekeepers to go rogue. For those who don't go rogue, the loss of a hive means the loss of income from honey production and future pollination, not to mention the expense of managing the hive throughout the year. They say they hardly break even.
What to do? To help her clients track their investments, pollination broker Denise Qualls merged her business with tech startup Bee Hero to equip hive boxes with a GPS-enabled sensor. Detective Freeman, who got into beekeeping after investigating his first hive theft, said he advises beekeepers to use security cameras and put their names and phone numbers on the boxes. He said some beekeepers have tried tagging their boxes with SmartWater CSI, a forensic tool used to help police trace recovered stolen property. The clear liquid is visible only under UV light, even through layers of paint, so police can ascertain the rightful owner even when thieves try to disguise boxes.
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